Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lessons from Easter Island

When European explorers first reached the Polynesian island of Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday in the year 1722, they found impoverished islanders amid huge and impressive statues. The islanders had little memory of how the statues had been erected, and by whom. The island was completely bereft of trees, the occupants had endured decades of famine, disease and civil wars. The Dutch who landed there found a microcosm of civilization in crisis. Now many centuries later the story of what transpired there is clear; Humans reached the islands by ocean going canoes around 300 AD. At the time the island was heavily forested and had rich resources. A vibrant culture arose there, developing a system of writing and erecting the now familiar statues. A caste system arose, breaking into clans.The island population increased, the resources were greatly reduced. Clans began to war over the remaining resources, eventually all the trees were cut, and the islanders could no longer manufacture canoes. They were stranded on an island thousands of miles out in the Pacific, with little food and with no way to escape.
We are in much the same predicament now on our island, Earth. We are running out of cheap fossil fuels. Both the European Union and the United States are now in the shadow of a rare Earth minerals shortage. Globally, a diminished supply of fresh water will soon be a flash point for wars and regional disputes (in fact it already is).
In space, there are almost limitless resources in the asteroid belt and outer solar system. Just this week it was announced that the moon has more water than the Sahara desert locked up in permanently shadowed impact craters near the lunar poles. This is a tremendous discovery for the possible establishment of a permanent presence there. From water you can make oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel. The moon also is rich in many of the materials for building solar panels, there is gold, titanium, and aluminum in abundance.
The question is, will we create an adequate space faring infrastructure to go out there and utilize these resources before we run out of them here on Earth? Will we fail to build our canoes before we run out of trees? Is our future out among the stars, or here on Earth where we will kill each other in increasing frequency over dwindling food and water? Next week the shuttle Discovery launches for the last time. We need to get serious about space before it is too late.